John Livingstone Clark — "Man Reading 'Woman Reading in Bath'"
Clark's ninth book closely dialogues with the poetic vision of Anne Szumigalski, unfolding an elegy of personal friendship through shared questions. Most of the collection's poems take their titles from a single line or word from Szumigalski's poem "Woman Reading in Bath." Clark often returns to the same line and selects different words, thus sustaining a richly nuanced poetic dialogue.
"Man Reading 'Woman Reading in Bath'" begins with twenty-five pages of "ghazals," a couplet form originating in ancient Persia and growing in popularity among Canadian poets. Clark's ghazals ignite sudden insights. His couplets combine familiar images from the Saskatchewan landscape or rural prairie life with painful emotions, exemplified in "river valleys embracing the plains- / the heart quickly broken," and "tiger lilies like a mind's last thought-/ who knows where beauty travels?" Other ghazals combine internal reflection and violent natural images, as in "sparrows tear through a spider's web – / chaos and rain–." Human judgment, "chaos," describes the torn web even as the rain drops fly in the sparrow's wake: nature and beauty fuse in a single moment of tearing action. Clark's "Faltering Ghazals" provides a fitting prelude to the lyric dialogue with Szumigalski. The ghazals leap, follow, and drift between interconnected thoughts, drawing the reader into a dance and weaving together images and insight.
Two thematic images predominate in the book's second section: the self floating alone at sea, and a mythopoetic confrontation of a bathing woman with the god of patriarchal monotheism. Explicating Szumigalski's first line, "I am alone swimming on the dark sea," the first third of the dialogue considers the self as both present and alien. Alone in the overwhelming space of open ocean, Clark's speaker asks a question insistent as the waves, "Who is swimming?" Even as the self considers its utter solitude, however, the body insists on the physical fact of its continued movement: "stroke after stroke - / aorta pumping its own / sanguinary cheer –." Thus the self moves from the despairing search for identity to the "encouragement" that "still the heart pumps out its own," as the body provides rhythm and "direction immaterial." The self, swimming alone, finds vitality in the relations of language, thought, body, and the openness of the sea. This conversation breeds transformation: as the speaker now imagines himself a manta ray, "gliding seas with great wings," the self's indeterminacy comes again into the foreground, "honestly was I ever a man?" Only the facts of the ocean tide remain constant to the self floating alone toward death.
Secondly, the series of lyrics turn to the central encounter of Szumigalski's poem: her speaker describes the collapse of God, who first looms up before her "clutching the slippery wet sides" of the tub on his "stick legs like a fat bird," before flopping down "gasping and stranded," a feast for crabs and birds. Clark's speaker expands upon Szumigalski's lines and images, celebrating the fall of the "One and Only God," who thought he could "carry himself erect" in "a world of water / in a universe shaped for floating." Simultaneous with the fallen patriarch, the first poems that represent Szumigalski's own voice appear, as the lonely male floater hears her voice declare "I am swimming." The final poems thus express a redemptive solidarity between swimmers even in a sea of unanswered questions. Clark's speaker proclaims that "a woman's body is a rich coral reef," and listens to the wisdom of the great female swimmer, the "crone," far ahead of him. The most beautiful poem in the series is the last, where the woman poet-prophet directly addresses herself together with the male swimmer:
You will never be given
a second chance-
and now we go! she cries
over the swells
clouds in a saffron sky
Spiritual life and physical existence blend into one. Patriarchal monotheism fades before the richness of duality birthed through the differences of woman and man, sea and sky, body and language, distance and intimacy. Clark's is a gentle poetic vision, fleshing out the verbs of floating and drifting, meandering with the tugs of sea currents and expanding slow healing reveries. At times, the gentleness approaches a quiet acceptance of oblivion, or the latitude of free floating endorphins (or "en/dolphins"). Other times, the poems achieve excruciating honesty and the pain of spiritual depth. Either way, Clark reaches out to his intended reader, never basking in his own profundity or distancing his reader with an overuse of allusion. Clark's poetic dance drifts with beauty and insight.